airplanes, scarcity, and survival

Heller’s The Dog Stars repeatedly demonstrates its awareness of and takeness with post-apocalyptic fiction and the U.S. post-apocalyptic novel by massaging and tweaking previous post-apocalyptic accounts through its loose epistolary style. Subtle reference is made to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), for instance when the protagonist, Hig, finds not just a can of coke but a whole truck of the stuff, or to David de Vries’s Life After People (2008 - 2010). The fragments and notes that form the narrative of the novel are much like the scraps, the bits and the pieces that Hig must use to survive, which brings us to the greatest vehicle for survival in the novel – indeed an actual vehicle: the airplane.

One might typically balk at the suggestion that any sort of vehicle could still operate after the end of the production of oil, after auto garages – or in this case airplane hangers – for repair, after infrastructure maintenance crews, etcetera. But, Heller’s novel provides the kind of thoughtful and logical account one can be pleased with. Ever the resourceful protagonist, Hig is a knowledgeable pilot: he understands the short life span of unleaded gasoline, where to find the freshest airplane fuel, and how to best extend its shelf life. Following this consistency, the novel is deeply satisfying on other registers as well. For instance, there is no pretense about Hig being one of the good guys, he even quips at one point that he's not sure he is “carrying the fire” (in another McCarthy reference). Hig, it turns out, is just as much the subject of circumstance as he is resourceful – he’s immune to the disease that kills almost everybody, he’s an aspiring poet (thus the epistolary style), and an airplane pilot – this is how the novel accounts for its conceit.
The novel does more than satisfy the skeptics among us, however, as it also traces the limits of Hig’s own knowledge and expertise. One recent review by Caroline Leavitt suggests that “The pages of The Dog Stars are damp with grief for what is lost and can never be recovered, but that “there are moments of unexpected happiness, of real human interaction, infused with love and hope, like the twinkling of a star we might wish upon, which makes this end-of-the-world novel more like a rapturous beginning.” I prefer to read the novel along the lines of Jeff Rubin’s Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller (2009), as the novel remains dedicated to thinking through the local in a moment of the global scarcity of oil, though appearances in the novel suggest otherwise. Just because Hig has figured out, in post-apocalyptic Erie, Colorado, how to maintain his plane and find the fuel necessary to patrol the perimeter of his shared territory doesn't mean he can fly any short of extensive scouting missions, or travel beyond a certain distance. It should be noted, that this flying of the perimeter is part of a deal he has with his interminable compadre Bangley, with whom the deepest moment of connection is a shared “Fuckin A.”[i] That is, each trip to scout their small territory is limited by the amount of fuel required to get home again safely, by a point of no return, by a limit beyond which Hig cannot go. 

The Dog Stars doesn’t stop at that limit, and this is where my interest in it enters the scene. On one of his trips around the perimeter Hig intercepts the briefest signal from a distant control tower. It is choppy and cuts out, but leaves him in a slowly mounting dilemma, indeed it takes a full three years before he decides to act. Should he investigate this message, trading in his life of repeated tasks and Bangley’s insistence that he not get lost in what Bangley calls “Recreating” (56) to chase this ghostly faint signal of a new, different situation?[ii]

In answering this question Hig reveals his symptom as Bangley and, later, other characters judge him for leaving behind the stability and safety of his life by the hanger. Arguably, what pushes Hig over the edge is his loneliness and the haunting absence of his partner, Melissa, now a decade dead from the disease. Melissa haunts his dreams, affecting his relationship to stability and possibility. The faint signal from Grand Junction, Colorado represents a chance to actively search out a life like he used to have. It is crucial to keep in mind that U.S. post-apocalyptic fiction, on one account, works through the complexities of the contemporary moment by simplifying its attendant structures (i.e. late capital) and relations (i.e. class), so that just as we can read the scarcity of airplane fuel as a spatial limit, Hig's absent wife and partner figures as the absence of the maternal tout court, registering as a limit to the future, indeed, a limit to any future whatsoever.

The publisher Knopf Doubleday ran a sweepstakes to
win the above pictured "The Dogs Stars Survival Kit."
The disease ridden Mennonite family that Hig often visits is dying off as surely as Hig and Bangley will, unable to reproduce a new generation of people. The shift from considering The Dog Stars as a novel making an ecological intervention, towards one that registers the politics of gender, marks its allegory as a deeply masculine one. What is Hig, the ‘reasonable’ white male who both hunts and abhors violence, writes poetry, cooks, and weeps at the disappearance of trout from the world, to do without a wife, without someone to sexual and socially reproduce his purpose in life through progeny, love, and care? Though chasing the stray signal from Grand Junction into the unknown could (without giving away the plot) restore some balance to Hig's life, we have to wonder if there isn't something else going on here, something to do with how we conceptualize and depict the limits that bar us from a radically different, radically collective future.

What The Dog Stars exposes then, is the connection of the problems of the present with the representability of these problems in the first place. Late in the novel Hig reflects: “Still, some nights I grieved. I grieved  as much at what I knew must be the fleeting nature of my present happiness as any loss, any past. We lived on some edge, if we ever lived on a rolling plain. Who knew what attack, what illness. That doubleness again. Like flying: the stillness and speed, serenity and danger. The way we could gobble up space in the Beast and seem to barely move, that sense of being in a painting” (311) The double scarcity – of resources and distance, reproduction and futurity – faced by Hig, then, also stands in for the scarcity of narrative solutions to the crises of the present, whether or not we have a plane to safely fly these limits it remains a project of the post-apocalyptic novel to outline, however faintly, that point beyond which thought itself cannot go, be it oil or gender, towards an unthinkable future marked by its absolute difference from the present.

Works Cited
Heller, Peter. The Dog Stars. New York: Knopf, 2012. Print.
Leavitt, Caroline. “The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.SF Gate (8 Aug. 2012). Web. Accessed 12 Dec. 2012.
Wesley, Rawles, James. Survival Blog (12 Dec. 2012). Web. Accessed 12 Dec. 2012.

[i] Both Bangley with his penchant for gun maintenance and repair and Hig with his wilderness expertise seem like ideal subjects for James Wesley, Rawles “Survival Blog: The Daily Web Log for Prepared Individuals Living in Uncertain Times.
[ii] "Recreating" is The Dog Stars’ term for a form of nostalgia for past relationships, both intimate and social that, in Bangley's view, could prove to be a fatal distraction.

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